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March 6th, 2013

Homework. XI.

We live in a time where more information and resources are available than ever.

The Internet has made it possible to connect with people you would have never been able to otherwise. Social media provides us with the incredible power to reach out to anyone.

With all the resources that come with the so-called “information age” we live in, many of us squander the benefits of access by reading useless websites or following celebrities– a huge waste of time.

Think about it. There are hundreds of people out there who are either doing what you want to be doing. There are thousands you can learn from. It’s easier than ever to find and meet these people. All it takes is a little time and effort.

This week I am challenging you to do something we often talk about, but rarely act on: find a mentor.

Here’s how you will do that.


Today’s homework is to reach out to someone you don’t already know and ask for advice.

Even though this can be scary and uncomfortable, the returns can be enormous. People are hesitant because it feels “forced” and they don’t want to look like they’re taking and not giving.

One way to alleviate this is to ask: “What do I have to offer this person?”

The value that you offer could be anything from user experience feedback, to talking about a shared interest. When you think of it as a shared give-and-take, it’ll feel more natural and less like some kind of networking exercise.

Take a minute a write down a few things you have to offer someone.

One great place to find potential mentors is at events. Go to events, conferences, and meet-ups, ready to ask questions. If you show genuine enthusiasm, you’ll have already established a good rapport and connection, which will make everything that much easier.

If going to an event is too scary, you can also build a relationship from email or Twitter. Almost everyone responds well to tweets–sometimes even better than email. Even if they don’t, you won’t have lost anything by reaching out.

Don’t forget to use the network that you already have. Make a short post on Twitter or Facebook, asking your friends if they know anyone who is an expert in knitting, coding, writing, or whatever else.

As you do this, you’ll discover that it’s not actually that painful. Most people are more than willing to share their knowledge with someone who is interested. There is absolutely no risk in reaching out – and who knows, you may find an invaluable life-long mentor just by taking this one step.

So choose someone. Reach out to them and offer to meet them. Today.


This assignment was sent to me by Dale Stephens, who I mentored at the Thiel Fellowship over the past year. His book, Hacking Your Education, is out now.

* Filed by Julien at 12:10 pm under homework

December 3rd, 2012

Homework. X.

Everyone is flawed. No single person has every answer.

Success, as a process, comes from learning as much as you can. As you figure out what your weak points are and correct them, you will become better. Your patterns will get more efficient. You’ll get more done in less time. Finally, your patterns will change.

Over the past few months I have had certain goals– different ones than I usually have for a totally different kind of project. All of these goals are things I have never really done before, and I wasn’t sure how to achieve them.

It was during a meeting a while back that it clicked. I was too stuck in my own patterns and making decisions based on my own worldview. As Bruce Lee would have said, my prison was my own ideas. I needed a change.

Here is how I did it.


Today’s homework is to make decisions, for at least one day, as if you were a totally different person.

Find someone you admire. You may not like everything about them, but in at least one capacity, find someone you feel does things right.

Take the quality you like about them and, in that quality, act exactly like they do.

Here are two examples of ways I have done this recently– but you can use this for anything.

One guy I know is amazing at connecting people, and I needed to meet more people, more often. So I set myself two goals– one, to meet two people every day, and two, to connect others as often as possible.

One of the advantages of this being a person you know is that you can literally text them– as I did, often, and ask– “hey, how would you behave in this situation?”

Turns out, this works. They answer the text, and they dictate the behaviour. You change your pattern as a result.

A second quality I wanted to emulate was to be more aware of my spending, and I had recently been reading a book about John D. Rockefeller Sr, Titan. (Ryan Holiday also recommends this one.) One of his primary attributes was to carry around a book in which he recorded all of his spending– even though he was wealthier than almost anyone around him. So I started doing this with the Traveling Salesman Field Notes edition. It works.

Do this today.

Choose someone. Act like them. It really is that easy.

* Filed by Julien at 11:46 am under homework

September 7th, 2012

Homework. IX.

It’s not always easy to breathe.

Breathing—the intake of oxygen and the exhalation of carbon dioxide—is life’s essential force. It’s the first step our physical bodies take towards making all other actions possible, including thinking.

In swimming, the rhythm of breathing is essential: you only have a few opportunities to catch a breath; it’s about timing your intake with your arms, kicks, and rotation. Without air, you can’t work the water.

Breath happens before anything.

Out in the open water, in the waves of the ocean, with the salt water sprays and the swells that take over, sometimes I turn my face upwards and a wave slams me in the face. I close my mouth, pass by that opportunity, hold the air in my lungs, and try again on the next cycle. Sometimes it takes a few turns before I get to suck in some oxygen.

My relationship with breathing has always been tenuous: when I was eleven, I was diagnosed with asthma. I learned my lungs were restricting my airways—and it would jump on me like a sudden cold, onset in minutes, causing breathing to be painful.

I would hide my inhalers, because I didn’t want something that gave me a crutch or a reason that I couldn’t be as good as anyone else. I learned how to push my back open against a floor, to rub my lungs to clear them, and how to hold my breath to stop my body from panicking.

I also learned how to hold my breath for a really long time. Getting into the pool every day gave me an intimate familiarity with the ways my lungs worked.

So swimming actually taught me how to breathe again.

Today, three years later, I’ve become an open water swimmer, chasing longer distances with each ocean adventure I find. I will routinely be late to work or leave for long lunch hours just to spend those hours in the ocean, my friend, the place where my soul is restored.

I need to touch the water, to splash, and to feel the curve of a wave beneath my hands. I’ll grab a board, and float out to sea, heart and head against the board, listening and feeling the rhythm beneath my body. My breathing will inadvertently sync up with the ocean swells, and the anxiety of my digital, corporate life gets left ashore. I’ll get up early, earlier than the sun, wander down to the ocean, and get into the water just to tune my body back into the rhythm of the earth.

But I had to learn how.


First, right now, as you’re sitting at the computer or staring at your screen to read this post: what does your breath pattern look like? Do you notice it? Are you breathing? Some people stop breathing while they are reading, and they raise their shoulders and hold tension in their bodies while at the computer. (A telltale sign is if you let out periodic sighs. Listen to others if you’re in a room, or set an audio-recorder on yourself for an hour. You’ll forget about it and can then listen to the breath sounds play back. It’s fascinating.)

Next, find a space to lie on the floor. Take a deep breath. Take ten slow breaths, with your eyes closed. Push the air all the way in and out of your lungs. Where are the bottoms of your lungs? Where are the tops of them? Can you fill the space entirely?

Practice changing the cadence of your breathing. Take 10 very quick micro-breaths. Feel your rib cage move in and out. Feel your heart race, your pulse jump, feel the reaction.

Breathe again, slowly.

Your breath is the foundation on top of which every other activity takes place. You can train it, just like you can train everything else. Change your body rhythms by controlling your breath.



This assignment was sent to me by Sarah Kathleen Peck, a swimmer, writer, and adventurer, who’s swimming from Alcatraz—without a wetsuit… or a swimsuit.

* Filed by Julien at 3:38 pm under homework

July 13th, 2012

Homework. VIII.

Le full suite JPG

The smallest space I ever lived in was a tiny, windowless room that couldn’t have been more than 150 square feet.

To be fair, it was in an apartment with shared roommates. I had a kitchen in another room, and some other living space. I barely used them though– I was a kind of recluse, actually, and I’m pretty sure I was a bad roommate.

At the time, I was traveling back and forth from Austin, TX. I had a girlfriend there that I dated for about 2 years. As a result of traveling, I learned to live inside a very small bag. I had already figured out how to live in a tiny room, so deciding what to travel with was easy too. My work was on the internet, mainly writing and speaking at conferences, so I didn’t really need to impress anyone. It was easy.

Yesterday I was MC’ing an event and had the chance to see a great talk from Graham Hill about his crazy minimalist apartment. This also got me thinking about my friend Vic Verdier, an ex-scuba world champion, whose whole life now fits inside of a bag (and also includes a 17″ laptop).

If you’re anything like me, seeing these guys makes you realize you just straight up have too much stuff. Despite your best intentions, they keep accumulating. For example, I now own three pairs of the same shoes. They were cheap, but so what? Is this ok?


This week’s homework is a part of a practice of detachment. Throw out or give away the most important item you can stand to get rid of.

To tell you the truth, I’m not even sure what I’m going to be doing this with. It’s a threatening thing to even think about– to get rid of something you actually like but don’t need– but in some cases, it’s necessary.

You’ll flinch when you’re about to throw it out. So it may be easier to just choose someone to give something away to. But even that, in a way, is copping out.

Whichever way you choose to do this, get rid of something significant.

Good luck with your assignment. Report back in the comments when you are done.

* Filed by Julien at 11:59 pm under homework

July 7th, 2012

Homework. VII.

Please excuse my tardiness. This homework assignment was provided by Joshua Millburn, my friend who runs The Minimalists.

I think everyone has, at one point, wanted to create work they were really proud of.

Some have tried in the past. But the way it usually works is that you start writing a book, recording an album, sculpting that piece of work, planning that special creation. Planning, planning. More planning. One day you’ll release it into the world. You’ll be remembered for it. At least, that’s how the story goes while you’re telling it to yourself.

Or, maybe there never was a great plan. Maybe you didn’t start anything. You knew you wanted to do something big, but never knew quite what it was. You kept looking, but somewhere along the way, you took a wrong turn, which felt like a right turn at the time. Maybe life got in the way, so you never resumed the quest. You never found that thing. Hell, maybe you never really started.

There’s a third type of person, too. They’ve done things before, maybe really big things. But they want bigger and better. They want more, for them and for their people. That’s cool, this is for you too.


Today’s homework assignment is simple. Write out the vision for what your great work was going to be.

What did it look like, sound like, smell like? How did it make you feel? Then, and maybe most important, why did you deviate away from it? Why did you stop? Did you settle? Did life get in the way? What actually happened? Do you even care anymore?

The way I do this is by writing out in 750 word freewriting sessions. You can do the same.

Get out a piece of paper, or write it in a text file. Don’t stop until you hit 750 words.

Good luck with your assignment. Report back in the comments when you are done.

P.S.: You can also check out Josh’s most recent book, Days After the Crash.

* Filed by Julien at 12:44 pm under homework

June 29th, 2012

Homework. VI.

There are a ton of homework assignments I have prepared for this blog. Some, I’ve already done. Others, I plan to, but haven’t yet. And then there are those like this one.

Inside of society, there are some things that are difficult just because they are accepted norms. Then, some things feel hard because they are based in biology. These are things that can make you feel extremely uncomfortable, even before you attempt them. I believe the following exercise to be one of these things.

We’ll discuss the assignment itself in a moment, but first, I wanted to point out a little of what these homework assignments are about.

I have always been a believer in doing things that are difficult. I do these things because they’re challenging, but also because they are like training for the mind. They help you prepare for important moments where you may flinch and do the wrong thing, the cowardly thing, by instinct.

When that time comes, I want you to look the right decision in the face, I want you to stare it down, and I want you to keep moving. I want this because I think that fundamentally, it will help you make better decisions, which will make you into a better person. And with a big enough group of better people, we have a better world.

To me, this quotes by Thomas Huxley really nails it.

“Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not.”

That is what all this is about. Making the right decisions, whether you like them (at the time) or not.


For this week’s homework assignment, I would like you to face the wrong way inside a crowded elevator.

Although there is nothing inherently complex about this assignment, I assure you that, for most, it will be among the most difficult things you do.

Society aligns itself in certain ways. Your body reacts certain ways to stimulus inside society to keep everyone in line, to keep everyone moving in the same direction, to make sure that everyone feels comfortable.

Facing in the right directions has deep implications for people’s sense of personal space and comfort. By performing this assignment you are going against all of those things. It isn’t going to be easy. But that’s ok. You should do it anyway.

For this exercise, find any elevator in a crowded place this weekend.

When the door opens, wait until everyone else has entered or exited. Be sure to be the last person to enter, and when you do, face in the opposite direction as everyone else.

I probably don’t need to describe the feeling to you. It’s likely that you know exactly how it will feel.

Good luck with your assignment. Report back in the comments when you are done.

* Filed by Julien at 11:59 pm under homework

June 22nd, 2012

Homework. V.

This assignment was sent to me by Jeff Goins. I thought it was so great that I decided it should be put here. Tell me what you think.

When I was younger, I got bullied a lot. A short and chubby redhead, I was the kid you’d see getting teased at recess. And for most of my youth, I attracted bullies who made me feel small. They got the girl, and I got anxiety attacks.

Moving into my teenage years, the sense of victimhood didn’t leave me. I didn’t have much of a social life and rarely left the house. I had a pretty cynical worldview. If something could go wrong, it would.

When I started running and losing weight, a strange thing happened: I didn’t become more confident. I was still very scared and shy, and this surprised me.

I always thought I was timid because of how I looked, but the truth was I had learned to live into others’ expectations of me. I became what other people perceived me to be. And I couldn’t escape it.

This false self-image followed me into adulthood, and eventually, I realized my lack of confidence was not something I was going to grow out of. Not without a fight.

If I was going to live the life I wanted, I would have to learn to be assertive. I would have to find a way to be confident. To overcome my fears. Even if I had to fake it.

The Practice of Confidence

So I began observing confident people. I studied how they spoke and acted, what made them different from the rest of us. I watched their mannerisms and how they conducted themselves in public, and then I started copying them.

Little by little, I made daily decisions that exuded confidence. I haggled with retailers and demanded apologies from rude telemarketers. I got in people’s faces and looked them straight in the eyes. I acted as if I believed in myself, even though I didn’t. The crazy part? It worked.

The more I faked being confident, the more I actually became confident.

After standing up to my first bully in over two decades — a drunk who harassed my wife at a concert — I felt more alive than I had in years. Although I was scared to face him, I did it anyway. To my surprise, he didn’t pound me into a pulp. He backed down and apologized.

And I walked away with an unfamiliar feeling of strength and peace that I kind of liked.

This experience taught me something: confidence takes practice. Although some people may be born with it, others have to develop it. They don’t inherit it; they have to create it.

I’ve applied this principle to other areas of my life and seen great success. Now, I regularly speak for live audiences and get asked to do interviews. I communicate with a confidence that surprises even me — all because I’ve learned how to practice.

Sure, I still have twinges of self-doubt, but I am growing into the person I believe I was meant to be.


Your homework this week is to emulate someone who is more confident than you are. Find someone who is bolder and stronger and observe them. Then copy what they do, even if it feels uncomfortable.

Do they never slouch? Do the same. Do they tell the hard, brutal truth right to people’s faces? Do that. Confidence isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible, either. All you need is a little practice.

Everything we do in life is practice. If you constantly question yourself and wonder about your abilities, what do you think you’re doing? It’s not being humble. You’re practicing insecurity. And if you can do that as a practice, you can do the opposite.

Good luck with your assignment. Report back when in the comments when you are done.

P.S.: Check out Jeff’s ebooks The Writer’s Manifesto and You Are a Writer while you’re on his site. Good stuff.

* Filed by Julien at 1:25 pm under homework

June 15th, 2012

Homework. IV.

Everyone has amazing people that were once in their life, but who they’ve forgotten about or let slip away.

It can be friends or family members. I used to not call my family at all, and now I make an effort to. This is the kind of thing that’s not obvious, but still important. We’re always rushing around, so we forget, but in the meantime, they don’t forget about us.

The irony of all this stuff is that relationships are what make us happy in the first place. Yet we keep going around and chasing other things. It’s stupid. Status, prestige, money, whatever else– studies show that these things just don’ t make us happy. But we keep looking for them instead of having a big dinner at our house like we should.

I want you to think about this more this weekend. You probably have some free time. Use it wisely.


Your homework this week is to connect with at least one person who should still be in your life, but isn’t.

Feel like you need to make a call to reconnect, but youre kind of worried about it? Make the damn call.

Or, you can go through old text messages and text whoever you haven’t spoken to in 6 months or more. This is an amazing technique and can jumpstart relationships that should never have stopped in the first place. Try it.

Another thing to do is to call a family member. I now have reminders in my phone that help me do this. I know I should do it. But just because it doesn’t occur to me at a given moment, doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. So use the technology you normally use for bullshit and use it for something that means something.

Whatever the means you use, spend a moment as soon as possible to connect with people you let slip. Do the right thing.

Good luck with your assignment. Report back in the comments when you’re done.

P.S.: I have a theory about collaboration and pop culture which I’m going to share it with you in a future post. In the meantime, know that it’s informed my decision to do a quick collabo with my friends at Dolbeau, which came out today. Check it out.

* Filed by Julien at 7:36 pm under homework

June 8th, 2012

Homework. III.

A long time ago, more than a lifetime ago, when I had no real career and nothing but dreams in life, I wanted to be an artist.

I had joined art school at the age of around 19 in order to one thing– a very specific thing. I wanted to become a metal sculptor.

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to make, exactly. I just knew that metal seemed like the material for me to use, and that I felt like it would be something amazing to do. So I joined art school.

I found the one art school that didn’t require a portfolio to get in. I visited the school, I applied, and I got in. I began to take drawing classes, art history, and everything else I needed to do. I also had to take a sculpture class that first semester, and so I did exactly what I was planning to do. I took metal sculpture.

It was this moment in my life, this time, at which the internet decided to intervene in my life.

I think it started in a simple way. I wanted a part time job. I happened to be able to type, so I took something at a local startup. This was around the time the dot-com bubble was starting to happen. Companies were building up around all kinds of ideas, large and small, whether there was a business model there wasn’t thought to be necessary. At the time, the name of the game was eyeballs.

Anyway, it quickly took over my life. I never finished art school. Now I do this whole other thing. I love it of course. But I never finished. And unless I start again, I’ll never know.

I’m going to bet you have someone in your life like this.


Your homework this week is to plant a seed of doubt in someone who needs it.

This job doesn’t have to be difficult. You just need to be able to talk to someone and remind them of their other life– the life they could have had, but that they don’t right now.

I did this the other week with a cashier at a coffee shop. I recognized her, and thought “she’s been working here a long time.” So I said so. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

This homework assignment isn’t complicated. But it is important. Remind someone of the life they wanted before they started making compromises. Be as direct, or indirect, as you like. Don’t push, but let it simmer.

Good luck with your assignment. Report back in the comments when you’re done.

* Filed by Julien at 11:35 pm under homework, random

June 1st, 2012

Homework. II.

There are lots of social norms that go unbroken in Western society. These rules aren’t written anywhere, but everybody who belongs knows them. Sometimes some people break them, but there are social consequences.

One of the examples I’ve noticed recently is that it’s against the rules to close your eyes in public. As soon as you do it, you’re basically considered homeless. It doesn’t matter if you’re waiting for a six-course, $200-a-plate meal, because if you close your eyes, all of a sudden, it’s like WTF is he doing! :)

Here’s another rule that’s pretty much unbroken: in polite society, you don’t negotiate. It’s just wrong.

I was at a supper a few years ago with one other guy and four older women. It was a steakhouse, and we had a big meal, and joked around a lot. It was a good time. But then, at the end of the meal, when the waiter asks if everything was good and the other guy goes “no, it wasn’t.” He proceeds to complain a little about the steak, saying it wasn’t enough this and not enough that. At this point the whole table goes quiet. Everyone is obviously uncomfortable.

Negotiating is kind of like that. It just isn’t done. At least, not here.

I have another friend who was born in Eastern Europe, so he was taught to negotiate for everything. He has passed through the discomfort and come through the other side. He has negotiated with Best Buy, Future Shop, at the grocery store, and probably even at Starbucks. And he wins, because he cares less than the other guy.

The corollary to the previous paragraph is that part of what you pay for almost any service, you pay to prevent embarrassment. So this weekend, you’re going to negotiate.

This weekend’s homework is to negotiate for something you are not allowed to negotiate for.

You don’t need to win. You only need to try. It can be as simple as ordering a coffee and saying “oops, I only have $2″ instead of the $2.25 that’s needed. But if you’re going for a major purchase, try it there too.

Another way to do this is to bargain on side aspects of the purchase instead of the previous one. “Can I get it for $200, tax in?” or “Can you throw in a free USB cable?” are both good templates to use. Try either, or both.

Use whatever tactics you think are necessary. The point isn’t to pay less, though– it’s to push through the anxiety of breaking social norms.

Good luck with your assignment. Report back in the comments when you’re done.

* Filed by Julien at 4:22 pm under homework